The Class Composition of Russia’s Anti-Putin Movement

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  AGAINST the DAY Maria Chehonadskih The Class Composition of Russia’s Anti-Putin Movement The Dynamics of the Anti-Putin Protest: From Illegality to Legality and Back T he grassroots movement against Vladimir Putin erupted in Russia in 2011. During this period, the agenda, goals, and dynamics of the movement have changed a great deal. In this essay I will look at the class composition of the anti-Putin protest and at its dominant political form—mass rallies, which were represented in public and in the media by the coalition of the oppositional leaders. 1  The question of why people went to the streets will be connected here with who they are and what kind of political and life experi-ences they have had. The liberal agenda of fair elections and democracy, which is seen as the main slogan of the movement, should be reconsidered through an analysis of the mass depoliticization of post-Soviet society and a critique of the mainstream ideologies that have promoted liberal and neo-liberal values over the last twenty years. In other words, I would like to dis-cuss the contradictions between the constructed political form of the protest and the class background of the ordinary participants of the movement.Let us look first at the political form of the protest and its chronology. The movement began in Moscow as a splash of discontent against fraud in the parliamentary elections of 2011, when political activists and youth spon-taneously spilled out onto the streets in illegal marches; within two weeks, The South Atlantic Quarterly  113:1, Winter 2014 󰁤󰁯󰁩 10.1215/00382876-2390491 © 2014 Duke University Press  Chehonadskih   •  Class Composition of the Anti-Putin Movement 197 the protests had spread to all the big Russian cities. According to the opposi-tion press, the seven biggest rallies of 2011–2012 drew between 35,000 and 100,000 people in Moscow, as well as thousands of people in the provinces. Gradually, the political actions developed from quickly organized meetings, which were brutally attacked by the police, into “legal rallies” planned by a loose coalition of liberals, leftists, and nationalists, who negotiated with the authorities on behalf of the protesters and began to represent the movement to officials and the media. As the movement began to grow, the self-proclaimed leading coalition was joined by media figures, pop stars, and former estab-lishment politicians who also redefined themselves as “anti-Putin” protest-ers. At the same time, ordinary participants in the demonstrations, includ-ing people from a range of different professions and from various grassroots activists groups, began to play the role of “the masses” to a new assemblage of leaders. The movement’s main political demand was a call for new elec-tions, but its adopted slogan—“for fair elections”—concealed the multiplic-ity and contradictions within this improvised coalition.This heterogeneous political body remained a consistent feature of the protest movement until Putin won the presidential election in May 5, 2012. After that, the demonstrations slowly shifted toward more concrete demands and started to discuss particular cases of corruption, injustice, and political repression, as well as social issues. The turning point was the demonstration on May 6, 2012, which was linked to Putin’s inauguration the next day. The May 6 demonstration was the seventh mass rally that was legally sanctioned to take place on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. This time, however, the police suddenly changed tactics and blocked the way to Bolotnaya in the backstreets and along the riverfront. This increased police activity provoked tensions and clashes, as the obstructed protesters were forced to break through the police cordon. The shift toward more resolute action and resistance to the police occurred in reaction to these contingent circumstances, but it also was connected with an increased politicization among the protesters. The movement had by that point already begun to understand that participating in demonstrations after Putin’s presidential victory was an increasingly radical political gesture, as the police were obviously receiving signals to suppress all protests. The people were not ready to give back their hard-won right to protest on the streets, in part because they finally had found a legitimate place to express their anger and dissatisfaction, but also—and even more important—because they had begun to recognize each other as members of one society. Having discov-ered that they were a part of a complex system full of contradictions and  198  The South Atlantic Quarterly   •  Against the Day •  Winter 2014 distinctions, they began at last to conceive of society as something signifi-cant and valuable.The demonstration on May 6 ended with violence and mass arrests: according to the police report, 436 people were arrested in connection with the protest. Despite brutal police efforts to intimidate and disperse the pro-testers, people did not leave the streets. A small group continued to migrate from one place to another, trying to prolong the action and stay on the streets until the authorities agreed to reconsider the results of the presidential election. During the following week, protesters attempted to occupy differ-ent squares, parks, and public gardens. As soon as they settled somewhere, however, the police would find and evict them, arresting many activists in the process. The cycle continued as those arrested were replaced by new activists, until finally the police forces refused to chase protesters. They worked without a break the entire week and finally called for days off and bonuses for extra work.During those days of unrest, a small group of protesters occupied a square in downtown Moscow near a monument to the Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbaev (Qunanbaiuli). There they set up a camp that came to be known as Occupy Abai. Initially the camp consisted of activists and young people, a group similar to those who had first participated in the illegal marches of December 2011. Very soon, however, thousands of people joined the illegal camp. Many of them became active participants in assemblies, organized various research groups, and helped run the everyday life of the camp. Previ-ously unknown or ignored political forces marginalized on the political spec-trum of the opposition became visible to the huge mass of people joining the camp. All kinds of activists—from antifascists, anarchists, and radical left-ists to liberals (old-style “democrats” who emerged during Perestroika), human rights activists, and even nationalists—found themselves defined as anti-Putin organizers and demonstrators. Their shared oppositional stance was the only principle uniting the many and varied political forces that came together in Occupy Abai. For precisely this reason, the artificial unanimity connecting the groups quickly collapsed. Each time someone touched on concrete political, economic, or social questions, a “struggle for recognition” from the ordinary participants of the camp erupted.During the time that Occupy Abai was operational, leftist organiza-tions and groups became visible and significant political actors for the first time in post-Soviet Russia. Occupy Abai challenged traditional political forms. Liberals and nationalists were puzzled at the nonhierarchical self-organization governing the Occupy Abai camp, since politically they did  Chehonadskih   •  Class Composition of the Anti-Putin Movement 199 not share the goals of communal and municipal forms of life. Both fac-tions became obsessed by the fact that the protesters seemed to forget about the leaders of the earlier legal rallies. The leftist activists who orga-nized the first assemblies and “human microphones” became a more impor-tant and vital part of the occupation than other political forces.The assemblies offered many participants their first experience of public discussion about key political and social problems: those involved gained more self-confidence as they saw their voices and decisions influ-ence the life of the camp and its agenda. The leftists arranged debates, dis-cussions, and lectures with intellectuals, activists, artists, and other cultural producers. While some young members of the opposition had earlier fluc-tuated among different political forces and discourses, they now began to commit themselves to leftist organizations and quickly became important and visible protest figures. The previously ignored and neglected leftist dis-course even became fashionable among the protesting group.Occupy Abai existed for only a week before it was destroyed by police officers, who returned to work at the end of their strike. Within a month after the camp was closed, the authorities created the so-called Investiga-tion Committee to inquire into the “disorders” related to the May 6 demon-stration. Between May 2012 and May 2013, twenty-eight more people have been arrested. They currently await trial and most likely will be charged as “extremists.” Held in a pretrial detention center, they expect prison terms of four to ten years for the organization of mass riots and “antistate activ-ity.” Unsurprisingly, there are many leftist and antifascist activists among the arrested. In conjunction with the wave of repressions against the May 6 demonstrations, a declaration outlawing and threatening to close a num-ber of leftist organizations, despite the fact that they were not officially reg-istered. The fallout of the May 6 demonstration and the Occupy Abai camp won the Left new proponents, but the protest movement as a whole was dismantled and people were again divided into small groups.The events of May 2012 changed the focus of the opposition move-ment from a demand for new elections to a defensive position. Since then, the movement has primarily protested against repressions, against con-crete cases of violence and human rights abuse, and against newly intro-duced antidemocratic and anticonstitutional laws. The struggle continued to localize in the form of self-organized initiatives, including the establish-ment of an environmental protest camp against the new forest road in the town of Zhukovsky, a mass movement of volunteers to support flood victims in the city of Krymsk, a student struggle against the commercialization of  200  The South Atlantic Quarterly   •  Against the Day •  Winter 2014 high schools and budget cuts in the education system, and the creation of a new union for university teachers. Thus, the anti-Putin movement has passed through a certain cycle. From mass protests against election fraud and demands for new elections, it has become more focused on concrete struggles. In other words, it has drifted from demands of legality to a more active and militant position. If at the beginning the movement mainly took the form of traditional rallies, accompanied by affirmative speeches by opposition leaders, later it shifted toward initiatives organized by the pro-testers themselves.Nevertheless, one can now see that after Putin’s inauguration, the lib-eral agenda became enmeshed in the politics of “small things” and human rights struggles far removed from big political projects, discussions about alternative models of society, and radical anticapitalist demands. Critiques of this kind come both from leftist organizations that maintain the idea of a middle-class revolt and from nationalists, who consider the protesters the indecisive face of an urban intelligentsia incapable of radical action. Both cri-tiques support the liberals’ understanding that the protesting masses are their potential electorate. First, the liberal doctrine of middle-class revolt cor-responds to the ideology of “reelection” (and thus would affect only a small correction of the political system). Second, liberals contrasted the passivity and “barbarism” of the provincial working class that remained generally pro-Putin (or politically neutral) during the protests to the activity of the anti-Putin urban citizens, whom they therefore called the “educated middle class.” Finally, the protesters themselves, in their demands for freedom, order, and legality in the country—as they put it in their slogans, they sought a “peaceful transition, not revolution”—espoused views that correlate to a moderate political position.However, the class composition of the protest was always diverse. We should really ask what stands behind the ideological constructions of “legality” and “liberal freedom.” How does the varying class composition correspond to the asocial and formal demands of reelection and the wide-spread belief in representative democracy, which is thought capable of solv-ing all the problems in the country? The Languages of Depoliticization: Official Propaganda versus the Liberal Opposition Mainstream For the majority of the 2011–2012 protesters, street politics was a new expe-rience previously associated with a “subculture” of radical activists. The very
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